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Political obstacles mount as progressives press Dems to act on voting rights
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., listens during a markup of the "For the People Act of 2021" in the Senate Rules Committee, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. The bill, which would expand access to voting and other voting reforms, was already passed by Democrats in the House. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

As Democratic leaders in Washington warn Republican-backed voting restrictions threaten the future of American democracy, progressive activists and state legislators have grown frustrated with their response, with some arguing their actions so far do not appear to match the urgency of their rhetoric.

“Sadly, the clock is ticking on our democracy with respect to the sanctity of the vote, unless we act to combat the actions taken by Republicans across the country to suppress the vote,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote in a letter to colleagues Monday. “This assault on the vote will not only harm our freedom but America’s example of freedom around the world.”

However, Pelosi’s proposed solution, the For the People Act, seems poised for defeat in the Senate, where a key Democratic lawmaker has joined all 50 Republicans in opposing the massive election reform package. Democratic leaders have not yet outlined a plan for what they will do if the legislation cannot overcome a number of steep political and procedural obstacles.

The sense of alarm among Democrats follows the introduction of nearly 400 bills containing restrictive voting provisions in 48 states this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, including 22 that have already been enacted in states like Georgia and Florida. Democrats fear those laws would make it harder for people of color to vote in many communities and, in some cases, could give Republican legislatures the power to overturn election results.

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Republicans have accused Democrats of drumming up baseless hysteria over benign election security measures they claim would increase public confidence in election outcomes. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week new federal voting protections are “unnecessary” and he alleged Democrats are trying to usurp state control of elections.

“There's no threat to the voting rights law,” McConnell said. “It's against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has called the For the People Act “essential to defending our democracy,” and he publicly vowed to make it a top priority for the 117th Congress. Schumer plans to hold a vote on the Senate version of the bill by the end of this month, but Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., has already announced he will not support it.

“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act,” Manchin wrote in a recent Charleston Gazette-Mail op-ed. “Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”

Manchin, who co-sponsored a previous version of the bill but now insists any federal voting rights legislation must be bipartisan, has become the target of protests by activists and civil rights advocates. Hundreds of demonstrators marched through Charleston to the senator’s local office Monday night, demanding he back the For the People Act.

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At a speech marking the anniversary of a racist massacre in Tulsa earlier this month, President Joe Biden denounced a “simply un-American” assault on voting across the country, and he directed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead a push to pass legislation to stop it. Harris held a listening session with activists in Greenville, S.C. Monday, and her office said she had already spoken with many voting rights leaders.

“I’ve been engaged in this work my whole career, and we’re going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again,” Biden said in Tulsa.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday the Department of Justice would double its staff devoted to protecting voting rights and challenging discrimination. President Biden has also signed an executive order aimed at expanding voting access and protecting the freedom to vote.

Civil rights organizations welcomed those executive actions, but they fear the DOJ’s authority will be limited without further action by Congress to strengthen its hand in court. The Supreme Court weakened the protections afforded by the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013.

“Having more voting rights lawyers at DOJ is extremely helpful, but as Attorney General Garland himself said, they also need Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act to give DOJ the tools it needs,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for advocacy group Common Cause.

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It is not certain how the wave of new state voting laws will actually impact elections in 2022 and 2024. Some analysts say both parties will adjust their get-out-the-vote strategies in response to any changes, and some GOP strategists have warned absentee voting restrictions could hurt their candidates in Florida and other states.

“While some of the rhetoric by Democrats may be a little overheated, the proliferation of outrageous voter suppression laws in red states around the country make a federal response critical,” said Richard Arenberg, a former Capitol Hill senior staffer and interim director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University.

Some on the left say the White House’s commitment to voting rights legislation does not reflect President Biden’s statements that the right to vote is under unprecedented attack. It could soon be too late to implement federal reforms ahead of the 2022 election cycle, and the administration appears to be focused primarily on negotiating an infrastructure package.

“It’s a pretty depressing one-two punch that the Biden WH seems wholly uninterested in passing democracy reform legislation, almost seeming to wear its disinterest as a badge of savvy, while AG Garland has done whatever the opposite of inspiring confidence is,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, executive director of the Battle Born Collective and former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

With Democrats on Capitol Hill deadlocked on a path forward, progressive state lawmakers who have struggled to prevent Republican majorities from advancing restrictive bills are trying to turn up the pressure. Texas Democrats who walked out of a legislative session to derail a vote on a GOP election integrity bill have implored members of Congress to act before Republicans have another chance to pass it later this summer.

A delegation of Texas legislators arrived in Washington Tuesday to meet with Pelosi, Harris, and members of the Senate Democratic caucus. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is set to host a massive voting rights rally in Austin Sunday as he urges congressional Democrats and President Biden to do more to advance the cause.

“You need the most powerful man on the planet,” O’Rourke told Politico. “He uniquely can call our attention and demand our focus on the most important challenge facing us, and then call us to action.”

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who received death threats as Republicans launched an audit of the 2020 vote count in her state’s largest county, said in a Washington Post op-ed Monday she is battling several proposed bills that could depress turnout among minorities and low-income voters. She called on Manchin and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to back changes to filibuster rules to allow federal voter protections to pass.

“I am taking what steps I can to fight back on a local level,” Hobbs wrote. “But I cannot succeed without help from Congress. Please, act decisively and pass the For the People Act. We are running out of time.”

A coalition of more than 70 organizations launched the Deadline for Democracy campaign Monday to mobilize activists during the July recess demanding the Senate pass the For the People Act by August. Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight Action recently kicked off a “Hot Call Summer” initiative to encourage daily phone calls to senators to support of the bill.

“Senator Schumer has said repeatedly that 'failure is not an option' and we're taking him at his word,” Ezra Levin, co-founder and co-executive director of progressive group Indivisible, said in a statement.

Scherb, whose organization participates in the Deadline for Democracy effort, said the legislative process is inching ahead slowly, despite Manchin’s public rejection of the For the People Act. Advocates are hopeful grassroots pressure will convince lawmakers there is strong public support for reform.

“There’s certainly a lot more activity happening behind the scenes, as well as a huge public push,” he said.

While Democrats broadly agree that something must be done to combat Republican-driven state voting restrictions, there is not a clear consensus on exactly what to do. Both bills under consideration in Congress have critics on the right and the left, and neither currently has enough votes to pass in the Senate.

Even some voting rights advocates and Democratic election administrators have voiced concerns about the scope and potential ramifications of the For the People Act. The sweeping legislation would impose new campaign finance regulations, place new administrative burdens on local officials, and implement other reforms not directly related to voting.

Manchin has pointed to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a more targeted bill that has support from Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., as an alternative. Senate Republican leader McConnell has staked out opposition to that bill, as well, dimming prospects to find 10 GOP votes to overcome a filibuster.

The bill, named after late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, would reinstate and expand the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that some states obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before changing voting procedures. That requirement likely would not apply retroactively to the bills already passed by GOP-led state legislatures this year.

Pelosi recently cautioned the John Lewis Act is months away from being ready for a vote, and premature passage could put it at risk of being overturned in court. House Democrats are still compiling evidence of discrimination to support the bill before the text is finalized.

Activists have challenged Manchin to identify voter protections that can get 60 votes in the Senate, and they are skeptical such provisions exist in the current political climate. In the meantime, they are reluctant to scale back the ambition of reform proposals polling well with the general public.

“We see zero reason to compromise with ourselves at this point,” Scherb said.

However, experts say Manchin has a valid point about the dangers of passing major voting legislation on a partisan basis. For one thing, it would require eliminating the filibuster, and that would open to door for a future Republican majority to pass more restrictive laws with 51 votes.

“One thing we know about the Senate is that it won't be in the hands of one party for too long,” Arenberg said. “The next time Republicans have the White House and the Congress, they will be able to reverse what Democrats do and put in place voter suppression laws on the federal level.”

Joshua Douglas, an election law expert at the University of Kentucky College of Law, predicted half the country would view any voting rules passed unilaterally by either party as illegitimate, so legislation that can secure GOP votes would carry more credibility. He observed Kentucky Republicans backed a bipartisan state bill that expanded voting access this year.

“In an ideal world, election laws would not be seen as partisan at all,” Douglas said. “Of course, we don't live in an ideal world, but I think the best course right now is for Democrats to try to seek some common ground and pass milder reforms that could still generate some bipartisan consensus.”

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As long as Manchin and Sinema oppose nuking the legislative filibuster and Manchin stands firmly against a partisan bill, the debate among Democrats and activists is somewhat moot. Regardless of what Democrats say is necessary to protect democracy, milder bipartisan reforms might be the only viable option in the current Congress.

“Given [Manchin’s] stated opposition, assuming that doesn't change, the only path is to break the bill up and try to find elements which can attract some Republican support,” Arenberg said.

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